When we were planning our trip to France, we knew that we wanted to spend a week in Paris and a week “somewhere else”. We were looking for a place that had some historical interest, that would be pretty to look at, and that would most likely be hospitable during the last week of March.
Because of the last one, the mountains (Alps and Pyrenees) were out. And we thought the coasts of Normandy and Brittany might still be a little cold and wintery for a visit. Burgundy and Dijon seemed a little too close to Paris to really be “getting away” and Provence seemed perhaps a little too cliché-French. That left deciding between Alsace-Lorraine, the Loire, Southwestern France and the Rhone.
Ultimately, we decided to travel to the Perigord region in the Southwest. It’s an area of rolling hills shaped by the winding of the Dordogne River as it makes its way west to Bordeaux and the ocean. From our research, it sounded like the town of Sarlat la Caneda would be a great base of operations – a medieval bastide town rich in history, with a great market famous for foie gras, walnuts and truffles.
We rented a gas-sipping VW Golf diesel at the airport and armed with a Euro-enabled GPS, a photocopied “Paris Environs” map from Hertz, and a Michelin map of the Dordogne, we set off. Some of the traffic around Paris looked a lot like the traffic around Los Angeles and The Beloved did a great job getting us around and out of the Ile-de-France. After that, it was pretty smooth driving all the way down (about 6.5 hours) to the Perigord Noir.
It’s a funny thing. Several sources had warned us about the treacherous roads in the Dordogne* — but really they weren’t that bad. And after the first day, we actually put the GPS away. The map we had was good and the signs at intersections told you in which direction you needed to turn. We only got turned around once or twice (never for long) and that was it. The only thing that was tough was the smallest roads in the region which were theoretically 2-lane roads, were really more like 1.6-lane roads. This made every encounter with oncoming traffic more akin to un jeu de poulet than sightseeing.
Sarlat is a beautiful town with historic center in which most of the buildings date from the 14th century and had been made a National Historic Site by the French in the 1960s (it’s also a UNESCO site). From what we gathered, the set of buildings in which our apartment was located was built in 1350s. In Sarlat, anything built after 1750 is considered “modern”. It was a great town to walk around and when it was late and quiet, you could easily imagine yourself strolling in a different century.
To me though, the great surprise of the area was the CASTLES. There are awesome castles strewn throughout the Perigord – seemingly plunked down on every precipice and river bend.
What I’d not appreciated while reading about the Dordogne is that is was highly contested during The Hundred Years War and that many of the bastide (walled) towns built along the river were built by either the French OR the English during the war – sometimes fortifications were built right across the river from one another. The most impressive castle – Castle Beynac – had been held by Richard the Lionhearted (yes, THAT Richard the Lionhearted) for more than a decade. His banner and sword were still there. How awesome is that?
Because of the War, almost all the churches in the area that we toured had statues to Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc). Also, as you might expect, the churches were only of interest if they were built before say… before the New World was discovered. The oldest one we found was the Abbey at Cadhouin which was founded in 1115.
The Perigord was also rumored to have bad weather in early spring – but we caught a huge break in that the entire week was pretty much sunny with highs in the 70s. Just gorgeous all-around.
I’d say we made a good choice.
*If you get confused between my switching back between “Perigord” and “Dordogne”, you’re not the only one. It confused me all week as places in the same town referred to themselves differently, too.